Out, Out!: Branagh “Macbeth” a Grand, Flawed Spectacle

Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston in Macbeth at Park Avenue Armory Photo by Stephanie Berger / Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory

If you’re charging $350 a ticket, which is what’s happening at the Park Avenue Armory with Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth, you better be offering something mighty special. As it happens, there absolutely are elements in this fancy enterprise, co-produced with Manchester International Festival and running through June 22, that go some way to fill that high-priced bill.

Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston in Macbeth at Park Avenue Armory Photo by Stephanie Berger / Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory
Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston in Macbeth at Park Avenue Armory
All photos by Stephanie Berger / Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory

To begin with, there’s Branagh taking on the title role in the William Shakespeare classic and Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth, and both are making their New York stage debuts. Kingston is probably best known to American audiences for her role on the late, still lamented ER, and it may that Branagh is most familiar from Wallender on BBC One, although maybe not.

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After all, Branagh is an accomplished movie and television actor and director (his Henry V and Hamlet films laudable achievements), whose unflagging devotion to Shakespeare, most notably for the Renaissance Theatre Company he ran in England from 1987 to 1992, perhaps hasn’t registered strongly enough here, more’s the pity.

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Possibly to rectify that situation, he’s brought stateside the production of what superstitious thespians like to call “The Scottish Play.” It’s special all right. “To be or not to be” isn’t the question, however, because this Macbeth most definitely is. The real question is, “How special is it?”

First mounted at a deconsecrated church (once St. Peter’s, Ancoats) seating 280, it’s now playing before 1,000 eager theatergoers, and whereas the arrangement was cruder at the church—patrons sitting on hard benches—the Armory set-up by designer Christopher Oram has attendees perched on cushioned bleachers. They face each other over a broad dirt-filled playing area that eventually looks rather like the Central Park horse-riding path.

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Initially, the outdoorsy layout is one of the exciting features. Branagh and Rob Ashford, who are co-directing this Macbeth take, have decided the audience needs to see the battle in which Macbeth triumphs just prior to Shakespeare’s somber beginning. That combat is the one after which Macbeth is named Thane of Cawdor for his exemplary prowess. The co-directors see the event as a rain-drenched, mud-luscious conflict among rugged warriors wielding formidable swords. It makes for sizzling theatrics.

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Well-staged fracas: Kenneth Branagh (center) in Macbeth at Park Avenue Armory
Well-staged fracas:
Kenneth Branagh (center) in Macbeth at Park Avenue Armory

And the well-staged fracas is preceded by the three witches—more regularly called “the weird sisters” (Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, Anjana Vasan) in the script—who appear snickering and floating between the pillars of a Stonehenge-like edifice at one end of the long stage. Again, the directorial notions, combined with the set design, Neil Austin’s lighting, Christopher Shutt’s sound design and Patrick Doyle’s music, enhance the ominous, light-thickening mood as well as the fun.

Other clever ideas flow. When Macbeth, contemplating Duncan’s impending assassination, thinks he sees a dagger, he sees it first at one end of the stage glowing between pillars and then dangling in the air at the other end. At times a large crucifix, looking dagger-like, drops into view. The reappearance of the recently deceased Banquo (Jimmy Yuill) during the banquet scene, which has the effect of throwing Macbeth off his feed, is highlighted by a dining table that splits in two along its length so that the apparition can stride through the gaping divide.

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Branagh and Ashford also think up something fresh when the warrior and his ambitious wife are plotting Duncan’s demise. As they try to coordinate their plans, servants hurrying past to deliver victuals to the room where the king and cohorts carouse keep interrupting the couple’s agitated scheming. Then Branagh and Ashford imagine that after Duncan is done in, the horror of the act is further ratcheted up by soldiers and women servants chasing each other through the chilly halls.

Alex Kingston in Macbeth at Park Avenue Armory
Alex Kingston in Macbeth
at Park Avenue Armory

The result is that a kind of life not necessarily depicted in previous incarnations is introduced throughout the two-hour, intermissionless, trimmed version. The cast members add to that life, beginning with Kingston as a gritty lady of the mad house. She does everything she can to maximize the jubilation the ambitious woman exhibits at her husband’s advancement.

The one drawback to Kingston’s performance isn’t her fault but that of her directors. It’s in the always-anticipated sleepwalking scene. Here, though Lady Macbeth in despair is sleeping, she isn’t walking. She’s standing atop one of the Stonehenge-like fixtures. This bit of blocking requires ticket buyers to tilt their heads and, since Lady Macbeth isn’t easily heard from that distance, strain their ears. It becomes a matter of out, out what spot?

Among other especially impressive performances are Yuill’s stalwart Banquo, John Shrapnel’s commanding Duncan, Alexander Vlahos’s complex Malcolm, Scarlett Stallen’s distraught Lady Macduff and Dylan Clark Marshall as Macduff’s plucky son. The burly , brooding Richard Coyle’s Macduff is outstanding. In his exchange with Malcolm, Macduff is winningly forthright, but his major accomplishment occurs when he receives the news about his besieged family and the loss of “all my pretty ones.”

No need to point out that what every Macbeth requires is a first-rate—make that transcendent—Macbeth. At 52, Branagh is unfailingly rugged, and it’s certainly right that an actor of his accomplishments and abilities should take the character on. (Let’s put aside how old Macbeth and his spouse should be. Are they in their late twenties, middle thirties? How often in any production is that little factor taken into account?)

From scene to scene Branagh serves the play well. His fighting technique is finely honed. (Terry King is the fight director; perhaps Ashford, a crackerjack choreographer, put in his tuppence.) When Branagh and Kingston meet as the Macbeths uniting after a long war-induced separation, they’re passionate as all get-out. He’s good at the Thane’s temporary reluctance to go through with the Duncan offing and just as good at the remorse Macbeth feels in its aftermath. He’s got his pre-Birnam Wood campaign cockiness down and delivers the “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech with inspiration, particularly the part about “a tale told by an idiot.” His pause before the word “idiot” lends the line devastating new power.

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What can be bothersome is that while Branagh is on top of all facets, he doesn’t put them into a seamless portrayal. Somehow, the performance gives the impression of being choppy, disjointed. It’s as if he’s taken each scene as a separate challenge and has forgotten the need for ultimate cohesion. Maybe as co-director, he became accustomed to stepping out of character from time to time in order to watch others and so overlooked the through-line. He’s too good not to make his usual mark, but something crucial, something binding is still missing.

Incidentally, Branagh and Ashford thought it would be a great idea for ticket holders on arrival to be assigned to a clan, undoubtedly on the belief this would get people thinking about Scotland and where loyalties lay back in that 11th-century day. Once told which clan, temporary clanspersons repair to a separate room and from thence are led into the Armory’s vast Drill Hall and along pathways and past hefty stones to their seats. Does the conceit make Macbeth an even richer experience? Not really, although it surely remains a truly expensive experience. Special, yes, but…